Faithful embrace the challenge of multiculturalism


COLUMBIA — Change is inevitable, but we have to make the decision to grow, said the presenters at a two-day multiculturalism workshop. The program stressed moving from ethnocentricism to ethnorelativism and exploring yourself and your culture.

“We have to look inside ourselves, look to our heart for a conversion, so we understand each other,” Sister Rosa Maria Icaza said. The Sister of Charity of the Incarnate Word is a professor and associate director of the Pastoral Department of the Mexican American Cultural Center in San Antonio, Texas. She and Humility Sister Toby Lardie, outreach project coordinator for the center, presented two two-day workshops for diocesan laity, deacons, religious and priests May 22-25.

The duo defined culture as “the learned behaviors, values, and perceptions of a group that are shared through individual symbols and meanings and form the group’s identity.” Within a culture there are conscious aspects that are seen, heard and tasted and unconscious aspects that affect our communication style. By realizing our unconscious characteristics, we can better communicate with different cultures.

The image of an iceberg was the central model for understanding cultures. Only a fraction of an iceberg is visible from the surface, while the greatest mass is hidden. The visible piece is the external culture, the conscious aspects, and the hidden mass is the internal culture, our values, traditions, communication styles, and perceptions.

The goal is to delve into the parts that are unconscious.

“It is lifetime work. We need to continue to look at ourselves,” Sister Icaza said.

Through a relationship with God, the sisters said we seek a conversion of our culturally based mindsets.

They referenced the Gospel of John: “Stop judging by appearances, but judge justly” (John 7:24).

“Only our Lord Jesus Christ will release us from these mindsets,” Sister Icaza said.

To make this conversion, you must first accept yourself; know your gifts and talents, so that you may offer them to the community.

“God does not make junk,” said Sister Icaza.

The next step is respect — respect for each individual and their talents. We can grow by learning from others cultures, the sisters explained.

Being open to diversity is imperative to the process. The sisters reminded the workshop participants that Jesus greeted women and lepers in a time when to do so was unaccepted.

“God likes diversity,” said Sister Icaza.

Another quality to ensuring a successful conversion is hospitality. She said Southerners know hospitality well and described it as seeing the “innate worth and beauty of every person.”

Through this conversion, in which people become more culturally sensitive and more aware of their actions toward others’ differences, communication may prosper. Then the gap between diverse languages and cultures will begin to narrow. The sisters stressed that maintaining your own cultural identity is very important as you begin to mesh with new cultures.

Sister Lardie said to accept the challenge of communicating with different cultures; don’t turn away because communication may be more difficult.

At Mass on the first day, Bishop Robert J. Baker quoted Pope John Paul II: “In order to proclaim the Good News to the men and women of our time, the church must be attentive to their culture and their ways of communicating without allowing the Gospel message to be altered or its meaning or scope diminished.”

The workshop included an activity in low-context and high-context communication. Not only do different cultures vary in communication styles, but individuals within each culture have their own way of communicating. Low-context communicators process information linearly and get right to the point. They are direct and confrontational, focusing on a quick solution. They determine the facts and make a judgment.

People that communicate in a high-context manner take much more time assessing a situation. They ask more questions and reflect on several solutions and how the solutions may affect others. They are indirect and nonconfrontational.

Participants at the workshop were asked to place themselves on a scale from one to six with one being very low context and six very high context. They then grouped themselves according to the numbers and discerned ways in which they could better communicate with people of a different context.

The sisters said that culturally aware people have a clear understanding of their own values and perceptions and see themselves as universal citizens, “related to all humans as well as distinct from all of them.”

Several key issues and challenges that a multicultural parish faces were discussed. Among them were leadership development and formation at all levels, being a church of integration rather than assimilation, increasing ethnic diversity, intergenerational conflicts between the newly arrived and second-generation immigrants, ministering effectively to youth and the loss of ethnic groups to other faiths.

In groups according to parishes, discussion began on tackling these issues.

“We need to begin to do something,” Sister Lardie said, “and continue if you’re already doing [something].” The groups were asked to look at where parish groups and committees collide, where the icebergs collide, and determine ways in which they can better communicate.

In getting started, Sisters Icaza and Lardie said that when decisions are made someone from every parish group should be included in the process. They suggested incorporating various cultural aspects into liturgy a little at a time, but only incorporate aspects so as to not alienate others who may feel uncomfortable with the differences.

“Learn how you act as a parish, so you collectively can communicate with others and help them know themselves,” they said.

By the end of the two days, participants began to embrace ethnorelativism, accepting differences, adapting their views and integrating differences within one’s own identity, creating a space within one’s own cultural identity that is open and inviting to other cultures and views. Hopefully the process will continue as parishioners bring this freer frame of mind to their parish and embrace all its members and their heritage.

“We are to be proud of who we are in order to help others be proud of who they are,” Sister Icaza said, “See multiculturalism as a gift from God.”